TITLE: Department Head as Leader AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 14, 2005 1:09 PM DESC: How I came to answer the question, "What kind of leadership can a department head provide?" ----- BODY: UPDATE 08/03/06: Near the end of this entry, I had originally used a cartoon image for comic effect, with a link to the author's web site. However, I had not obtained legal permission to use the image. The author asked me to remove the cartoon from the entry. I have replaced it with a description of the gag. ++++ Before I applied to be department head, I was discussing the idea with some colleagues over dinner at the spring planning meeting for OOPSLA 2005. During that conversation, Brian Marick asked me, "What kind of leadership can a department head provide?" The question shouldn't have caught me off-guard, but it did. I'd been so busy thinking about the details of administration, the politics of my own department, and the mechanics of applying that I hadn't spent enough time thinking about the big picture, about the universe of what a head can and should accomplish. I gave some mumble-mumble answer to Brian at the time, but afterward that question consumed a lot of my energy over the next week or so, as I wrote up application materials. How might I answer the question now? Here are some of my thoughts. As always, I'd love to hear yours. What kind of leadership can a department head provide? Within the department itself, the head's primary jobs are to remove friction and facilitate discussion. Removing friction means making sure that the department runs in such a way that faculty can do their jobs without interference. The head must take care of paperwork, routine interactions with students and university, and any other issue that distracts the faculty. The head should facilitate discussion so that the faculty can set the course for the department. In order to accomplish this, the head must work to create an environment in which all feel comfortable participating in and contributing to the department's welfare. In this regard, the head's job is to help the faculty do its job, only better. At the boundary of the department and the world, the head's job is one of agency. First, the head advocates for the department at the college, university, and regents levels, ensuring that the faculty's concerns are heard and arguing its case for the resources it needs to achieve its goals. Second, the head represents the department to students, parents, the university community, the civic community, and the computer science community. (As I wrote recently, I realize now that a non-trivial component of this representative role can be thought of in terms of the department head as teacher.) To be an effective advocate and representative, the head must care deeply for the department and its purpose. I do. Finally, I believe that a department head can provide a form of personal leadership, by setting an example of open communication, transparent decision making, and respect for others. A good head does not settle for a passive stewardship of duties but instead seeks actively to help the faculty define and achieve its goals. ---- As I thought about applying for the position, and then went through the process, I sometimes wondered if I were putting myself in the same position as the narrator a classic comic I once saw. Two cavemen have set a trap for a saber-toothed tiger: a box sitting over a hunk of meat and propped up by a stick. When the tiger comes to partake in the treat, the cavemen will pull a rope tied to the stick and drop the box down on top of the unsuspecting diner. The visual punch line: the cavemen are standing under the box, too. What was I getting myself into? But ultimately I acted with confidence, because deep down I believe that leading my department is a worthwhile task, an opportunity to help my colleagues achieve something honorable. For my assignment as department head, I have adopted the following quote as my credo:
The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.

-- Max DePree, Leadership is an Art

(I found it in a wonderful little book I first learned about at Ward's wiki, on a page about wonderful little books.) And, besides, if I do find myself trapped under a box with the tiger that is my faculty, I can take solace that my current appointment as Keeper of the Box runs for only three years... -----